The conventional wisdom in Washington is that Iran’s elections are insignificant. Regardless of who wins, the argument goes, in the end, it’s the supreme leader who calls the shots.
That is shortsighted. Yes, the coronation of Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi as president in one of the least competitive elections in the Islamic Republic’s history — an outcome Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, intended — consolidates all power into the hands of the hard-liners. And yes, the hard-liners’ win might spell a tougher security approach domestically to stifle critics and ensure they preserve their grip on power as the system prepares for transitioning to what comes after the 82-year-old supreme leader.
But transitions, especially in tightly controlled societies, can be extremely perilous affairs. For them to go as smoothly as possible, leaders want calm and stability externally so that they can focus their attention on what preoccupies them domestically. And that’s where the United States might actually have a real opportunity to make progress on the nuclear talks with Iran.
Mr. Raisi’s ascendancy to the presidency may very well be a steppingstone on his way to the pinnacle of power. Another possibility: Ayatollah Khamenei empowered a pliant president who would not challenge his authority, so that he could usher in institutional changes, like transforming Iran’s presidential system into a parliamentary one, which could lessen infighting.
No matter the reason, having consolidated power, hard-liners are now likely to start purging any internal opposition (as they did in the past) to their plans for the post-Khamenei era. That will not be easy. Iran has witnessed recurring social unrest in the past few years as the system has failed to reform and respond to widespread grievances. It’s not a stretch to presume many are likely to resist hard-line policies.
Iran’s leaders have finite resources, so they will want to ensure they face relative calm outside their borders, to focus on a seamless transition at home. After all, self-preservation trumps all else.
There is precedent for this. In the aftermath of Ali Khamenei’s re-election as president in 1985, Iran’s leaders agreed to a cease-fire that ended the eight-year Iran-Iraq war and started a constitutional reform process. While war exhaustion inside Iran was real, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini vowed to carry on until victory was achieved. Instead, he accepted the cease-fire in 1988. He equated the concession to a poisoned chalice, but it also allowed the government to pursue a domestic consolidation of the Islamic Republic. The process ultimately abolished the prime minister’s office, created a consensus-building mechanism for major decisions in the form of the Supreme National Security Council and oversaw the first transition to a new supreme leader.
Presently, the hard-liners are in control of all levers of power, so there is less scope for infighting and mistrust. The deep state in Iran — Ayatollah Khamenei’s office and the military-cum-security establishment — have sought to undermine President Hassan Rouhani and his envoys. They devoted time and effort to discrediting his administration’s policies, including and specifically around the nuclear deal. They also did what they could to prevent Mr. Rouhani from going too far with his Western interlocutors. A foreign policy team headed by one of their own will face less opposition.
Finally, the way the system is built already encourages continuity abroad. Iran’s strategic decisions are made by a small group of senior officials in the Supreme National Security Council. The supreme leader’s appointees, nearly half of the council’s members, will remain in place after the change in government.
A more monolithic Iranian system that seeks stability presents Washington with an opportunity.
Iranian and American negotiators just wrapped up the sixth round of negotiations in Vienna aimed at mapping out a path back to the 2015 nuclear deal from which President Donald Trump withdrew the United States. Iranian negotiators, despite not having shown much flexibility thus far, nonetheless appear keen to finalize the road map for restoring the nuclear deal before Mr. Rouhani leaves office. That’s encouraging. It would provide Mr. Raisi with the best of all worlds: He comes in with a clean slate, blaming Mr. Rouhani for the road map’s shortcomings while reaping the economic dividends of sanctions relief.
Not just that, but if the nuclear deal is restored, the Biden administration might stand a better chance of negotiating a follow-on, stronger nuclear agreement that it wants with the Raisi administration — for the same reasons of regime coherence — than it would have had with Mr. Rouhani’s team. But while Iranian hard-liners may be better placed to follow through, they are not necessarily adept at negotiating with Western powers. In this regard, Mr. Raisi’s choice of foreign minister will be critical.
For the Biden administration, the political cost of deal-making with Mr. Raisi is higher because the United States has imposed sanctions on him for his sordid human rights record. But Washington cannot choose its interlocutors and has plenty of experience negotiating with unpalatable counterparts. The alternative to negotiations — an exponentially growing Iranian nuclear program — threatens to set the United States and the Islamic Republic on a collision course where there will be no winners.
Ali Vaez directs the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group. He is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and a former U.N. official. Dina Esfandiary is a senior adviser to the Middle East and North Africa program at the International Crisis Group. She is a co-author of “Triple Axis: Iran’s Relations With Russia and China.”
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